It sounds nice: going from diapers to underwear, clean and dry, in less than a week. Nobody likes to clean up after accidents, and weeks or even months on end of it sounds like torture. While real potty training needn’t involve tons of accidents, there are going to be some from time to time, and for a lot longer than you think.
The thing is, potty training takes place in stages. There are several different skills that your child will develop along the way, and there is no possible way to develop all of the skills at the same time. Some are dependent on mastering others, for instance. Some are developed before your child can truly be called potty trained.
Skill 1: Desire
Okay, so desire may not be a skill exactly, but it certainly is a prerequisite for potty training. I can tell you in no uncertain terms that your child will not master potty training until they want to. So if your two-year-old still doesn’t like wearing underwear, or if your three-year-old is scared to sit on the big potty, don’t fight it. For the two-year-old, the time will come when they want to grow up and be like bigger people. When that happens, you’ll find that things go MUCH more smoothly. It might only be a month down the road, or it might be a year. Don’t panic yet.
For the three-year-old, don’t make them use a big potty. Make the process as safe and comfortable as possible, and your child may warm to it.
And for some kids, like one of mine, bribes might just be what you need to get the desire going.
Skill 2: Release
This skill involves letting go and allowing the urine or stool to exit the body. For some kids, this is almost effortless. They don’t like going in their diaper, or they notice no big difference between going in the diaper or on the potty. Some kids develop this skill as early as 12 months. I have heard some new parents get excited because their one-year-old peed or pooped on the potty, thinking they were going to get lucky and leave diapers behind forever much earlier than expected. But this is only a step on the way. Now, for some kids, release is a very hard skill to get down, and by the time they figure it out, they may have also developed the next skill as well and may actually be ready after all.
Skill 3: Recognition
Sometime along the way, your child must learn what it feels like to need to go pee or poop. This is a different knowledge than identifying when they are going. It’s a really good sign when your child says, “I’m peeing!” while wearing their diaper, but it isn’t the same. You need to teach this one, usually. Explain the place where the bladder feels full, and explain that it feels heavy or full, like it’s wanting to push the pee out. Explain that needing to go poop feels like gas is about to come out, except it’s a little easier to hold it. It may feel awkward having these conversations with your child, but if you don’t, they may take much longer to figure these things out themselves.
Skill 4: Control
Your child needs to learn not only to go on the potty, but to only go on the potty. That means holding it until they sit down. Failure to master this skill will mean lots and lots of accidents for you, the parent, to clean up. Some potty training methods have the parent schedule times (every half hour or so) to tell the child to use the potty. This is great in that the child probably won’t have as many accidents, but the child also will never learn how to control the urge to go.
Many parents try potty training with their children, failing after a few days, and then one day, it just takes off. The element that finally snapped into place was the development of control. Once these four skills are mastered, many parents will say their child is fully potty trained, and maybe they’re right. But there are a few more skills to develop, and accidents may still occur until this happens.
Skill 5: Delay
When you’re in a situation where using the restroom is inappropriate or impossible, you hold it. Your newly potty-trained child will eventually learn that they can hold it too, long enough to get to the store restroom or to drive home. And then they will want to test the limits of this ability. Sometimes they’ll be playing and try to hold it just because playing is more fun than using the bathroom. But they don’t know yet how long it’s possible to hold it, so they’ll do it just a little too long. Oops, an accident! You, the parent, may be surprised or angry. Your child has been dry for weeks. Why an accident now?
Realize that this is an important stage. By having that accident, your child learned where the too-long point is and will probably avoid it in the future. It may take a few more accidents to get the skill mastered, but it’s not usually too many.
If you find that a child who has been potty trained for a while is still having accidents from time to time (more than a few), you may want to look into whether they are constipated. Yes, even wetting pants can be a sign of chronic constipation, which can make it difficult to feel the urge to go.
Skill 6: Endurance
This isn’t really a skill either, but if your child doesn’t have the desire to go the distance, you may find that your child reverts back to having accidents every time over and over and over. You’ll potty train, then a few weeks later have them back in diapers, then potty train again, then back in diapers. This can be SO frustrating for parents who think the hard work is done, only to go back to square one!
What’s happening is that your child is realizing that using the toilet is a lot more work than diapers. Meanwhile, your praise and bribery is probably waning a little, as it should. It’s not like most kindergartners get stickers for using the bathroom! Maybe your child decides it’s not worth it to keep going, or maybe misses their diapers.
How do you encourage endurance? For my kids, it’s a matter of having a good conversation with them. Ask them what they like about using the bathroom, and share what you like about it. Ask them what they like about diapers, and really listen. Maybe their answer will tell you that they’re not really as ready as you think they are. Maybe you’ll learn what you need to do to get them to commit to underwear for good.
And if you do? You’re done!
So while teaching release may happen in a day, and teaching control might happen in three, learning delay and endurance takes much, much longer. Don’t lose hope if you have some setbacks after your three-day potty-training boot camp! It’s all part of the process, and it’s perfectly normal.
Also? If your child is a special snowflake who doesn’t develop these skills in order, or who waits a really long time on one and then rushes through the rest in a day? Yep, that happens too. It can be normal to potty train for urine but not stool, or vice versa. Kids are all different, but you and your child will find a way to potty train.
Just probably not in three days.